The art of the late-game clutch field goal
Josh Brown places his right toe on the ground exactly where he wants the ball held and the process begins. He takes three steps backward...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Josh Brown places his right toe on the ground exactly where he wants the ball held and the process begins.
He takes three steps backward, two to the left and waits. The distance is always the same, his steps calibrated by years of practice.
Repetition and routine. The approach Brown followed playing eight-man football at an Oklahoma high school is the same he used to kick four game-winning field goals for the Seahawks this season. Repetition and routine. It's how a kicker stands up to the moment when the outcome of a game is not so much in his hands as on his foot.
The job is compulsive and it is crucial. Of the first 192 games played in the NFL this season, 52 were decided by three points or fewer. Coaches spend a week constructing a game plan, commentators spend three hours discussing trap blocks and seven-step drops, and two teams full of 300-pounders trade body blows for four quarters only to have a small player with a big foot come out to decide everything. That reality has elevated the importance of the position, not necessarily the understanding.
"I don't know anything about that," Seattle defensive end Bryce Fisher said of last-minute kicks.
Seattle @ Arizona, 1:05 p.m.
Soccer matches get decided by shootouts and basketball games often come down to free throws, but a game-winning field goal is different. It's performed by a specialist.
"It's a love-hate relationship," linebacker Lofa Tatupu said. "You love to have them because they win games for you. Josh has won four for us ... but you hate it when you're out there, and he's over there sipping a Gatorade, helmet on the ground, visor on."
Kickers sweat, too, only it's from anxiety, not exhaustion. The ball isn't the only thing they must keep straight. They've got to keep their mind in line, too. When coach Mike Holmgren discusses kickers, he often puts his index finger next to his temple and swirls it. You know, cuckoo.
Josh Brown's four game-winning kicks in the final minute of regulation ties the NFL record set by Ryan Longwell in 2004, but the Seahawks kicker isn't the only one who put the boot to an opponent. Here are some of the more memorable game-winners this season.
62 Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant made a 62-yard kick on the game's final play and the Buccaneers beat the Eagles 23-21 on Oct. 22. Bryant's kick was the third-longest field goal in league history.
60 Tennessee's Rob Bironas had the wind at his back when he kicked a 60-yard field goal to beat Indianapolis 20-17 last Sunday. NFL history includes only six field goals of 60 or more yards, and two were game-winning kicks made this year.
54 Seattle's Josh Brown's kick on Oct. 15 was 5 yards more than the Seahawks planned after a procedure penalty against Seattle, but he still made his third field goal in the fourth quarter of the Seahawks' 30-28 victory in St. Louis on Oct. 15.
47 Nick Novak got an unexpected opportunity to beat Dallas on Nov. 5 when Washington blocked Dallas' Mike Vanderjagt's 35-yard attempt with six seconds left. Safety Sean Taylor returned the kick to the Dallas 45. A 15-yard face-mask penalty was added to Washington's return and gave Novak the opportunity to kick the game-winner.
But while he might not understand his kickers — or even want to — he doesn't underestimate the importance.
"In this day and age, it's such an unbelievably important guy to your football team," Holmgren said. "And when you have one that's not wacky, you really have something going.
"And our guy's pretty good."
Ready, aim, kick
Norm Johnson stood by the Gatorade container when Chuck Knox called for the Seahawks' field-goal unit.
It was 1983 and the Seahawks were playing the Chiefs at the Kingdome. The game was in overtime, Seattle driving toward what Johnson was sure would be the game-winning touchdown. Johnson remembered wondering whether a team had to kick an extra point if it scored.
"I'm standing on my tippy-toes looking over this group of people running onto the field," Johnson recalled.
It looked like the field-goal unit, but it was only third down. Johnson approached the coach to ask if he had just called for a kick, and Knox bellowed for him to get in there.
"So I run in there, clock's running down," Johnson said. "We kick it, we win."
Not only must the kicker go from sideline to center stage at a moment's notice, but he must do it without being blinded by the spotlight. These are the moments when the routine acts as a crutch. It helps bear the weight of the moment.
"Every time you step on the field as a placekicker, you need to try to do everything the same way," said Johnson, who kicked for Seattle from 1982 to '90.
Repeating the same process as compulsively as Rain Man builds muscle memory and even more confidence.
"Every kick is the same, whether it be the first kick, a PAT to start the game, or the last kick to win the game," said Bob Casullo, Seahawks special teams coach.
"Focus," Brown says when he gets on the field. It's more than just one word. It's an acronym. Focus. Organize. Concentrate. Unwind. Step. F.O.C.U.S.
The process is designed to make every attempt feel the same even when there are 52 teammates and more than 60,000 fans waiting for the game to be decided by a swing of the leg. Pressure makes diamonds, but it can also make a mess of a kicker.
"Some guys got it and some guys don't," Casullo said.
Defining it is difficult. Faking it is impossible.
"When you lose it, you lose it," Casullo said. "What it is that you got or what it is that you lose, nobody seems to know what it is. It's that zone. We're very fortunate right now that Josh is in that zone."
Mike Vanderjagt, billed the most accurate kicker in league history, signed with Dallas in March. He made 217 of his 248 field-goal attempts in Indianapolis, which included a league-record 42 in a row from 2002 to '04. Nine months later he was out of a job, waived by the Cowboys after missing five of 18 field-goal attempts this season.
Ryan Longwell began his career in Green Bay in 1997, an undrafted free agent who looked so young Holmgren cocked an eyebrow when he arrived in training camp.
"I didn't even know his name," Holmgren said.
The team lined up for a field-goal attempt in practice, and one of Longwell's first kicks thudded off the back of the left tackle's helmet.
The Packers played in Philadelphia the second game of that season and trailed 10-9 in the fourth quarter. The team drove the length of the field and lined up for a 28-yard field-goal attempt. He missed, and Holmgren addressed Longwell in the locker room after the game.
"Instead of exploding in front of the team, I said, 'Ryan, you're going to be here a long time, and you're going to win a lot of games for us. Just keep your head up and, blah, blah, blah,' " Holmgren recalled.
Longwell is in his ninth season in the league, signing with Minnesota in the offseason. He made four game-winning field goals for the Packers in 2004, setting the league record Brown has tied this year.
Brett Favre and Reggie White came up to Longwell on the plane, telling him that success in the NFL means responding to failure. That's especially true for kickers, whose results contain no ambiguity. A game-winning attempt is like a light switch. It's either off or it's on.
"There's not a C grade when the game is on the line," Longwell said.
Brown missed what would have been a game-winning field goal in Washington last year, his 47-yard attempt bouncing off the left upright. He made the next six game-winners he attempted, including his kick Sunday in Denver.
Johnson tried to think of it as a game of percentages. An 80-percent kicker is going to miss two out of 10 attempts.
"I just hoped those two didn't come at inopportune times," Johnson said.
The tattoo on Brown's right foot is a Chinese character that translates to power.
At least that's what he was told. He would like to say he spent all sorts of time researching it, and it was something he had thought about for a long time. The truth?
"I was bored on a Sunday afternoon in college."
The character was on the wall of the tattoo shop he went to in Nebraska, but don't read too much into the symbolism.
"I don't try to label it or do anything," Brown said. "I've seen some guys who put a dollar bill in their sock because they're money or whatever. Some of that stuff is a little silly. I didn't do it to mean anything. I didn't tell anybody about it. I just did it because I wanted one."
The confidence, though, doesn't get lost in translation. It's an essential ingredient.
"Kicking a game-winner is very different for whatever reason," said Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who used to hold for kicks in Green Bay. "It's like making a big putt. A birdie putt is tougher than a bogey putt."
Golf is the most common analogy for kickers. Misses are hooks or shanks. A kicker gets under a ball that comes up short and he tops a ball that comes off low.
And a kicker wants his leg as straight as the shaft of a driver when he makes contact with the ball, knee locked and foot extended. Brown wants the ball held so he can't see the laces.
But contact is only the final step in a process that starts much earlier. It's more than a habit and not as superstitious as a ritual and the most important factor in a game-winning kick is the steps that lead up to it.
"You've got to have the mental makeup," Hasselbeck said. "You've got to go out and kick it like you're the only guy out on the field."
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org